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2014 Nancy Foster Mission: Finding Fish and My 'Sea Legs'

Published on: 03/25/2014
Research Area(s): Marine Spatial Ecology

Notes from the scientific expedition team currently aboard the NOAA ShipNancy Foster (March 15 -April 3):

Finding Fish and My 'Sea Legs'
by Jennifer Johnson, NOAA Hollings Scholar Guest Blogger

I am a NOAA Hollings Scholar studying biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The Hollings Program includes an opportunity to intern with NOAA, and, as you might have guessed, the opportunities were endless. I contacted many individuals and came across an internship that fit my criteria and stimulated my interest. As a result, I was offered an opportunity to intern during the summer of 2014, co-mentored by Tim Battista and Chris Taylor in NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

To prep for the upcoming summer work, I was given an opportunity to be part of the first leg of the research cruise to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. I have been very fortunate to be a part of an ongoing mission that is focused on understanding the distribution and condition of coral reef ecosystems in the surrounding waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands. I leaped at the opportunity because I have had previous experience working with hydrography and hydroacoustics. Curiosity also was a big determining factor, because I had never been to sea before and was eager to experience hands-on field work. I quickly learned aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster that the food is delicious, the people are friendly, and, most importantly, the science is invigorating.

As an intern I have been able to experience many new technologies and have been exposed to methods that I have learned about only in textbooks. For instance, observing Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and their associated gear first-hand has been highly captivating. The ship itself is versatile and can mold to the needs required of various scientific projects.

My specific responsibility on the ship is to assist with the acquisition and analysis of fish echosounder data. The fish echosounders are advanced, scientifically calibrated 'fish finders' used to collect data on fish and their habitats. Unlike common fish finders, our system can store data for later analysis. The data stored are detections of fish made by the returned echoes off of the swim bladders of fish.

After surveying areas around Lang Bank and St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, I then use specific software that counts and stores fish detections in a database. The database contains attributes such as coordinates, depth, and intensity related to fish size. The database is used to calculate the density of fish populations, i.e., high biomass areas. With these data, ROV data, and multibeam data, we can identify fish species and further learn how these areas of high biomass are associated with habitat characterization.

Ultimately, all of these data are used to make maps for management and further research. And all of these systems of acquisition are required for the data to be as accurate as possible. Each system reinforces or supports another, similar to a system of checks and balances. For example, just using multibeam or fish echosounders would not provide enough information for habitat and species characterization. In contrast, solely using the ROV would be inefficient and highly expensive. Although the other systems have limited capability in the type of data that can be acquired, they can cover large areas at an efficient rate. This combination of technologies is ideal to help managers on the islands conserve fisheries and preserve habitat.

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